Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Burying Animals Alive

The Center for North American Herpetology Lawrence, Kansas 12 May 2006

Incidental Gopher Tortoises Not Smothered by Concern by CARL HIAASEN

If your kids asked to bury a small animal alive, you'd be horrified. You'd tell them that's an awful thing and that they ought to be ashamed.

Most children wouldn't dream of doing it, of course, because they know what's wrong and what's right. Unfortunately, they don't make the rules.

Consider Florida's poor, pokey Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus). Since 1991, the state has allowed grown-ups to bury 74,000 of them because their burrows stood in the path of future subdivisions, highways, golf courses and supermarkets.

Officials prefer the word entomb instead of bury, but it's the same dirty deed.
Even on his most fleet-footed day, the average tortoise cannot outrace earth-moving machinery. Some are able to tunnel to freedom, but most suffocate slowly over a period of weeks.

Gopher Tortoises have been around for 60 million years, but the last few decades have been murder. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission classifies these ancient land turtles as a ''species of special concern,'' though obviously not special enough to be left in peace.

A child can't legally keep one as a pet, yet a big company or even a school district can obtain permits to snuff them by the hundreds.

Dwindling in numbers, the animals live in dry hammocks, coastal dunes and pine scrub. There they dig elaborate dens that provide shelter to more than 300 other species, including rabbits, burrowing owls and the endangered Eastern Indigo Snake.

As luck would have it, prime Gopher Tortoise habitat is often prime real estate, which means the tortoises get the boot or, more typically, the bulldozer.
state calls this ''incidental taking,'' which is a bureaucratically sanitized way of saying ``smothering to death.''

The permit process is straightforward. Developers seeking to build on land colonized by Gopher Tortoises typically agree to contribute to a habitat fund, or set aside a relatively small parcel.

It's called mitigation, a lame charade intended to make the state appear vigilant and to make developers appear caring. In the past 10 months Florida has granted
345 permits to bury tortoises. The Sun-Sentinel recently published a


The Tuscano golf course development near Sarasota got permission to kill 260

of the turtles in exchange for preserving 138 acres.

In Duval County, the Young Land Group was told it could destroy 190 Gopher Tortoises if it paid $169,442 for 29 acres of habitat.

The Orange County Public Schools got permission to kill 110 Gopher Tortoises on the future site of a high school, in exchange for preserving 12 acres at a cost of $92,037.

Vikings LLC in Marion County was approved to wipe out 470 Gopher Tortoises for a 542-home golf course development, in exchange for preserving 136 acres.

In Palm Beach County, Wal-Mart got permission to bury five Gopher Tortoises in exchange for a whopping 1.49 acres of habitat.


Mitigation is always meager. A pending project in the Tampa Bay area would obliterate 2,573 acres of Gopher Tortoise habitat, yet under current rules the developer is required to set aside only 168 acres. That's a net loss to the turtles of 93 percent of their home territory.

News accounts about the tortoise-burying permits have angered many Floridians and discomfited wildlife officials, who admit that not enough is being done to save the reptiles. The state now wants to expand tortoise preserves in the Panhandle, which sounds like a plan except that moving the critters hasn't worked. Studies have shown that most of the relocated newcomers have died from respiratory disease or other ailments.

Process as slow as the tortoise

Four years ago, the FWCC staff proposed elevating the status of Gopher Tortoise to a ''threatened species,'' which theoretically would offer more protection from habitat loss. No action was taken, and the sanctioned killings continued.

Several local governments decided there was no time to lose. Lee, Collier, Martin and Hillsborough counties adopted ordinances that made it more difficult to destroy the species, even with a permit.

On June 7, the state wildlife commission convenes in West Palm Beach, a public meeting at which the plight of the Gopher Tortoise finally will be addressed. A key factor will be the ''risk of extinction,'' which grows worse with every mass burial.

If commissioners agree that the species should be reclassified as threatened, biologists and administrators will begin drafting a management plan. It's a process as slow and lumbering as the Gopher Tortoise itself.

In the meantime, officials say they're working with developers and landowners to deal with the ''entombment issue,'' which has turned into a serious public-relations headache.

There's nothing ''incidental'' about burying an animal alive. Just ask your kids.
They'll know better.


Blogger pissed off patricia said...

The two tortoises in the pictures are safe. The picture of the one crawling into his home was taken about 15 feet from my backdoor. He came to our yard as a very little guy not much larger than a walnut. As he grows he enlarges his home.

May 17, 2006 4:22 AM  
Blogger Laurie said...

BASTARDS! I had never heard of this, Patricia. Thanks for the heads up.

May 17, 2006 4:53 AM  
Blogger Human said...

Quite upsetting. I've always adored turtles. I thought Florida was getting it's Enviromental mess together. Soo much for that.

May 17, 2006 5:30 AM  
Blogger Peacechick Mary said...

It's funny, I thought of CT this morning. CT is the name of a gopher tortise we rescued from a bulldozer incident. Maybe the Gopher Tortise sprits have a drum they beat to tell us there's trouble again. The massive development in Florida is out of control. Soon we will be a state covered in concrete and riky-ticky McMansions. I hear it's going on in every state. Sigh.

May 17, 2006 7:36 AM  
Blogger Pogo said...

You have some of the best posts in the blogosphere. I'll tell my kid to look for gopher tortoises when we're at Grayton Beach in June. He loves looking for living things. in the dunes and on the beach. I had no idea that Indigo snakes lived in the Tortoise burrows. Those are among and may be the most beautiful snakes I've ever seen.

May 17, 2006 8:03 AM  
Blogger Donviti said...

the great thing about corporations is they don't have to have ethics

May 17, 2006 8:39 AM  
Blogger Kathy said...

How awful. It makes me ashamed of mankind when I hear stories like this. It's always "me first" and screw everything else in this country.

May 17, 2006 9:01 AM  
Blogger SB Gypsy said...

I read the book "Collapse" and wondered over how people in the past could wipe out their environment to the point where it would no longer support their own lives. Now I know. Humankind is a juggernaught, and not intelligent enough to create sustainable cultures in the long term. We will go the way of the dodo, and by our own hand, because the selfish outnumber the wise.

May 17, 2006 1:34 PM  
Blogger Reflections said...

What beauty, what shame!!!!

May 17, 2006 3:18 PM  
Blogger Granny said...

We've going through a lot of that around here too.

People don't seem to realize the damage they're doing to all of us by destroying species.

We're barbaric.

May 17, 2006 7:02 PM  
Blogger Trial.Lawyer.Richard said...

POP: When I was a kid in Broward County there were Gopher Tortoises and Box Turtles all over the place. I used to keep them as pets and then release them later. They don't have a chance when the Bulldozers come.

You know, in South Palm Beach County the little burrowing owls are getting plowed under too.

Maybe we're the ones that are being "entombed" by all this development....


May 17, 2006 8:15 PM  
Blogger eProf2 said...


I second the motion by Pogo. You do, indeed, have one of the best blogs around. I think I read recently that Florida is the fastest growing state in the union right now with development rates at an all time high. Similar to the other migration issue being debated over on CL, why don't we put a fence up around FL to keep aliens out, especially those coming from the NE? It might just save the turtles. Just kidding!

May 17, 2006 8:39 PM  
Blogger Snave said...


People can be so goddamned dumb and thoughtless sometimes.

This story makes me want to get out Ambrose Bierce's "The Devil's Dictionary", one of the funnier, more cynical and misanthropic things ever written.

SB Gypsy, isn't "Collapse" something? What a great analysis of our current condition and of the choices we make and their potential ramifications... scheise!!

May 17, 2006 9:34 PM  
Anonymous Libby said...

That makes me want to vomit. Horrifying.

May 17, 2006 9:52 PM  
Blogger a rose is a rose said...

i have always enjoyed hiaasen's fiction, now i like him EVEN MORE

thanks for posting this

May 18, 2006 2:46 AM  
Blogger spadoman said...

This is a quote from Chief Seattle:

We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of the land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy - and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his fathers' graves, and his children’s birthright is forgotten.

I think of this great Chief and visionary when I read about things like the turtles. I'll be careful today and try to make a difference. Thanks for giving this to me.

May 18, 2006 3:02 AM  
Blogger Mary said...

Greed is king in this world. Disgusting. Spadoman's comment is right on.

May 18, 2006 5:05 AM  
Blogger glenda said...

This is sickening.

May 18, 2006 3:55 PM  
Blogger sumo said...

It's so sad...I love turtles. I have some desert Tortoises that I take very good care of.

May 19, 2006 12:51 AM  
Blogger Rory Shock said...

this completely sickens me, pop ... the "special concern" designation doesn't really mean squat does it ... I wish more had your special concern ... every time a piece of land is raped for the spread of endlessly spawning naked apes so many nonhumans die and are displaced ... its gotta stop

May 21, 2006 6:07 PM  

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